English criminal law has recently been working overtime. As Extinction Rebellion protests have disrupted everyday life at multiple locations, well over 1000 people have been arrested in Central London.
Dame Emma Thompson grabbed the headlines, jetting in from Los Angeles in support of the movement, saying that she wanted to be arrested. After her day in the sun on board Berta Cacares, the bright pink protest boat berthed at Oxford Circus with the slogan ‘Tell the Truth’ emblazoned on its hull, the 60-year old actress left the scene without having achieved her stated ambition. She was free to go.
‘The Truth,’ according to the Extinction Rebellion website, is: ‘We are facing an unprecedented global emergency. Life on Earth is in crisis: scientists agree we have entered a period of abrupt climate breakdown, and we are in the midst of a mass extinction of our own making.’ The organisers’ response to ‘The Truth’ is non-violent direct action.
The first protest began on Monday 15th April when traffic was stopped at Marble Arch, Oxford Circus, Waterloo Bridge, Piccadilly Circus, around Parliament Square and at various transport hubs such as Heathrow airport and the Docklands Light Railway. The aim, according to the Extinction Rebellion website, was to ‘shut down London.’
In itself, this was not achieved since most people carried on regardless. But on the wider issue of bringing attention to their cause, the protestors have certainly succeeded. So beyond blocking traffic for days on end at busy junctions, what is their real aim?
The website offers an explanation: ‘Extinction Rebellion is taking action on the streets of cities all over the world – from Auckland to Accra, Mexico City to Vancouver – over multiple days to demand that governments take necessary action on the global Climate and Ecological Emergency.’
While there have been similar protests in nearly 30 countries, nothing has been achieved on the scope or scale of events in London, which has been the beating heart of the Extinction Rebellion movement from the outset.
The vast majority of protestors have been peaceful and genial. Educated, predominantly middle class and undoubtedly well-intentioned, these are not stereotypical law-breakers. It is therefore all the more surprising that so much of their anger has been directed at the British government for its failure to address the global climate challenge facing everyone -and every government – on the planet.
Somewhat lost in the hyperbole surrounding the issue of ‘The Truth’ are the full facts. Few doubt the extreme severity of the carbon dioxide (CO2) problem. The level of climate-warming CO2 in the atmosphere is indeed at a near catastrophic level, primarily caused by the continued burning of fossil fuels. Levels of the greenhouse gas have caused temperatures to rise and will continue to do, according to a wide range of respected forecasters.
But contrary to what the Extinction Rebellion supporters might choose to believe, ‘The Truth’ is more nuanced and more complex. Although there is a global problem of increasing CO2 emissions, in Britain they are fast decreasing. ‘The Truth’ – inconvenient though it may be for some – is that Britain has done more than any other major industrial country to reduce CO2 emissions for the past three decades.
Yes, more than any other major industrial country – and by a notable margin.
The figures below, published in 2018 by European Commission and Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, show the comparative CO2 emissions (Mt CO2/yr) for the top polluting countries, as well as the contributions of global shipping and aviation.
|1990||2017||2017 v 1990||Increase/Decrease|
|2) United States||5,085.90||5,107.40||100.40%||0.40%|
|World – International Shipping||371.8||677.2||182.20%||82.20%|
|7) South Korea||270.1||673.3||249.30%||149.30%|
|9) Saudi Arabia||166.2||638.8||384.40%||284.40%|
|World – International Aviation||258.9||543.4||209.80%||109.80%|
|14) South Africa||312.5||467.7||149.70%||49.70%|
|17) United Kingdom||589||379.1||64.40%||-35.60%|
A few facts standout out from the data to add to ‘The Truth’
- Britain’s total annual CO2 emissions now account for only 1% of the global total compared to 2.6% in 1990
- Britain’s total CO2 emissions have declined by 35.6% since 1990 – more than any other major industrialised country
- Britain’s place in the major countries’ CO2 emissions list has fallen from 8th in 1990 to 17th in 2017
- Japan (up 14.9%), South Korea (up 149.3%); Canada (up 35.4%) and Australia (up 46.1%) have all increased their CO2 emissions since 1990
And then we come to the major polluters. Between them, the big three countries – China (29.3%), the United States (13.9%) and India (6.6%) – account for 49.8% of global CO2 emissions. True, the US could certainly do a great deal more to emulate its European counterparts because it is only in Europe where the big CO2 numbers have been falling.
The 2016 Paris Agreement (Accord) to deal with greenhouse-gas-emissions was agreed by 185 countries. But when it comes to making a real difference, one country really matters: China. In March, the largest domestic power producers asked the Chinese government for between 300 and 500 new coal power plants by 2030: that move alone would, by itself, jeopardise global climate change targets. By 2030, on current emission growth rates, China will be contributing more than 40% of total global emissions. And rising.
Of more than 1000 people arrested in London, only 53 people have so far been charged in relation to the protests. It is a clear sign of the uber-liberal attitude by the UK authorities to the conduct of the demonstrators, who, despite a wealth of evidence, chose not to include the Chinese Embassy in Portland Place as one of their London targets. This is a mistake.
As the 30th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests approaches, little has changed in the thinking of the Chinese Communist Party. Mass protests are still strictly forbidden in China: direct action of the type engaged in by Extinction Rebellion would not be characterised by laughing policemen. They would instead be met with the full force of the law – and probably with brute force from the Chinese military.
Global peaceful protests outside Chinese embassies in multiple cities around the world might therefore be just the thing to force a rethink by the country’s leaders on their future energy plans and the billions of tons of additional CO2 that seem destined to be part of them.
Those who have been protesting in London may feel a warm glow about the noble cause which they are actively pursuing. But in determining what ‘The Truth’ is, they first need to examine all the available evidence. And then act accordingly.
Dominic Carman, journalist, writer and legal commentator.